This week we finish the book of Numbers. The Israelites have come to the river Jordan, and are getting ready to enter the promised land. Moses takes care of some unfinished business - going over some laws, a battle of vengeance against Midian. The tribes of Reuben and Gad ask permission to settle in Transjordan instead of crossing the river, and after they assure Moses that they will take part in the conquest of the promised land, providing vanguard troops, they are allowed to leave their families and their cattle in cities already conquered. The apportionment of the land is reviewed, including an addition to the inheritence of land by daughters when there are no sons - and Zelophahad's daughters agree to marry within their clan so that the land does not pass from the tribe.
So now we are about to read about the crossing of the Jordan and the conquest of the promised land, right?
This double reading ends the story begun in the book of Exodus of the redemption of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, and it makes sense for it to be a stopping place or a prelude to the story of Joshua. In fact, some scholars believe that the Pentateuch should really be a Hexateuch, including the book of Joshua. Others have said that the Torah should end here, with the end of Numbers, and that the book of Deuteronomy should be attached to the Deuteronomic histories (the Lesser Prophets in the Jewish canon) since it matches them in style and probably of the time of its writing.
But of course, neither of these is the case. Torah consists of the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers - and Deuteronomy, which we will begin reading next week.
Every year our liturgical cycle ends with Deuteronomy, and goes back to In the beginning. The land is promised but never achieved, except for the settling of the tribes of Reuben and Gad (and later half of the tribe of Menassus) in the parsha Masei, at the end of Numbers. And of course, this is not in the promised land itself.
In the spring I began to lead a study group on the Deuteronomic histories* which got through Joshua and part of Judges. I plan to resume this in the fall. We began with a discussion of the purpose of histories in the world until the past 200 or so years. It is only then that we began to view history as the study of what happened. Before then, history always had a purpose, usually to exalt the leaders, and to denigrate the previous leaders, whoever they were. Revisionists go back to the Egyptians who changed the names of leaders in inscriptions describing battles. Actual history always includes a point of view. (There was a brief discussion in a recent diary about the revisionism in Shakespeare's Richard III.)
So we are left on the margin of history, poised to see what happens next - only we will not see what happens next until much later. In an election year, we are all poised on the margin of history, and all we can do is work and plan for what happens next.
*In the Jewish canon, histories are not a separate entity. The Deuteronomic histories include Joshua, Judges, I and II Samuel and I and II Kings. Interestingly, this is actually closer to a chronological presentation of the books, since other books included with these histories in other canons were written much later.